Full of hot air

Written by Chaz on 29 November 2012

In early October, I made my third trip in the last year to visit my uncle Eric, aunt Teresa and cousin Madison near Albuquerque, New Mexico. My trip was timed to coincide with the legendary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest gathering of hot air balloons. Yes, it’s kind of an unusual thing, but it was a terrific excuse for more time with my aunt, uncle and cousin. I arrived late on Friday, and they met me at a hotel downtown so that we could stay near the fiesta itself.

We rose early on Saturday morning, the first day of the fiesta, and at 5 a.m. began a marathon journey up the interstate through horrible traffic to the fiesta grounds. Just as we finally arrived at the parking lot, we heard on the radio that the morning’s mass ascension — the fiesta’s pinnacle moment, in which upward of 750 balloons rise simultaneously into the air — was cancelled. So we diverted course and grabbed some breakfast. My aunt and cousin returned home, while Eric and I headed north to Los Alamos, home of the nuclear research lab and Bandelier National Monument, known equally for its desert scenery and its petroglyphs and cliff dwellings that suggest human presence as old as 11,000 years ago. The park is accessible only by a shuttle bus operated by the humorously named Atomic City Transit.

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We set out on the ruins trail and were soon surrounded by the scenery of Frijoles Canyon, passing cliff dwelling after dwelling. It was a beautiful October day.

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Bandelier was severely affected by the Las Conchas forest fire in 2011, leaving the park much more vulnerable to flash flooding after much vegetation was destroyed. As a result, the facilities are now more spartan, and documentation of flooding was everywhere.

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We continued past the simple nature trail on another longer trail to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling so high that is accessible only by four ladders rising 140 feet.

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We returned to the shuttle bus via the other half of the nature trail loop, where more fire and flood damage was evident. From Los Alamos, we beelined back to my uncle’s house for rest, relaxation and a delicious dinner of dry-aged steaks.

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After dinner, we debated our plans for the next morning, when the balloon fiesta had another mass ascension on the schedule. But the weather again looked threatening, and it would likely have been another grueling trip through heavy traffic, so we decided to scrap it. This, of course, guaranteed that the 750 balloons ended up making it into the early morning air, a sight we saw only on television.

But we had a backup plan, and Sunday morning found Eric and me on our way to Pecos National Historical Park, site of both more American Indian dwellings and a Civil War battle. The drive up to Pecos was beautiful, beginning on a dirt road that seemed even more rural than others my uncle and I have traversed and continuing past the autumnal colors of the desert.

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We began our Pecos visit with a loop trail through the ruins, which showcase both the native dwellings and the ruins of the buildings constructed by the Spanish conquistadores who moved through the area. The trail followed a ridge, giving us excellent views of the area.

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From the ruins trail, we drove over to the park’s newest trail, a historical walk through time that explains the Battle of Glorieta Pass. One does not think of New Mexico as a theater of the Civil War, but in fact it was, and the trail gave us a sense of how the area’s geography influenced the fight. Curiously, the trail is behind a locked gate, and we had to get the code from the visitor center. Perhaps as a result, we were the only people there.

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Making sure to lock the gate behind us, we began driving back toward Eric’s house but took a short detour over to the tiny train station in Lamy, New Mexico. As it turned out, the Southwest Chief was arriving shortly, so we stuck around to see the train — the checkpoint’s second viewing, in fact.

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After the train rolled out of the station on its way to Chicago, we realized we were both starving. So we turned the car around and headed north again to Santa Fe, where we waited for nearly an hour for a table at Cafe Pasqual’s, an adorable New Mexican restaurant. I opted for the mole enchiladas while my uncle had the green chile bison burger, which had caught my eye as well. The mole was outstanding, and was definitely something one doesn’t often find in Boston, making it well worth both the trip and the wait.

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After our late lunch, it was finally time for a visit to the main attraction of the weekend that we had failed to take in thus far: the balloon fiesta. Though we would not make it to an ascension, we planned to see an evening glow, in which the balloons inflate and light their burners simultaneously to create a sea of glowing balloons around the fiesta grounds. We arrived just in time for the launch of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, in which ballooners compete to see how far they can make it from Albuquerque before landing. The winners ended up making it 1,626 miles to the North Carolina coast.

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As the sun began to set, the balloons began to rise as they were inflated, and the main event was about to begin. Though it was no ascension, the evening glow was still very neat, and gave me a sense of the sheer number of balloons involved in the fiesta.

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And as it got darker still, balloons of every shape began lighting up all around us, creating an amazing evening scene.

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We left before the inevitable traffic began, my appetite whet for another more complete visit to the fiesta. I left New Mexico early the next morning, grateful for another terrific visit to the Southwest!

 

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